by Mel Valentin
"Last Days," Gus Van Santís fictional (and fictionalized) exploration of a drugged-out, isolated, alienated, and emotionally damaged rock starís (read: Kurt Cobainís) mental and physical disintegration in the last days before his death, is the kind of minimalist, modernist-influenced film that rarely gets made by independent filmmakers any more. Van Sant's oblique, elliptical, observational approach to character and plot (what little there is) means "Last Days" will be seen and appreciated by a limited subset of moviegoers, primarily viewers familiar with and appreciative of European art cinema, e.g., Michelangelo Antonioniís 1960s existential dramas ("La Notte," "L'Eclisse," "Il Deserto rosso," "Blow-Up," "The Passenger") or Wong-Kar Wai's contemporary adaptations of modernist forms ("Chungking Express," "In the Mood for Love"), and music fans who still hold Kurt Cobainís work as a singer/songwriter and frontman for Nirvana in high esteem (although psychological insight is in short supply and none of Cobainís music appears in the film).As Last Days opens, Blake (Michael Pitt, credible if not fully persuasive in a difficult, introspective role), a rock star back from a stint in rehab (Blake still wears a hospital-provided wristband), wanders aimlessly in the heavily wooded area surrounding his estate, first bathing in a cold stream, returning home to retrieve a hidden stash of drugs (we never see him shoot up or otherwise take drugs) while his hangers-on sleep the day away in an upstairs bedroom. As the drug (heroin) takes hold, Blake nods in and out of consciousness, sometimes falling to the ground, often stumbling or teetering on the verge of losing balance, mumbling to himself (physical behavior typical of heroin users). Time slips forwards, backwards, sometimes looping back on itself (which may suggest that Blake is caught in a purgatory of his own making).
"Primarily for cineastes and Nirvana/Kurt Cobain fans."
As the days and nights slip into one another, Blakeís actions consist primarily of evading family, friends, bandmates, agents, and a private eye hired by his wife to track him down (the PI expends little effort into finding Blakeís whereabouts, concerned more with sharing eccentric stories with his driver). For Blake, relationships are inextricably tied to obligations and responsibilities, and his fragile ego is unable and incapable of handling either. Only his mother (Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth) seems to show genuine concern for him, but errs too, by reminding him of his daughter (and thus, his obligations) and arguing that his drug-fuelled, hermit-like existence will make him a "rock-star clichť." (Upon hearing of his death, Cobain's real-life mother apparently made a similar statement to the effect that Cobain had just joined the [expletive deleted], dead-at-27 rock-star club which includes Janice Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, and Jim Morrison of The Doors). Blake's hangers-on, Scott (Scott Green) and Luke (Lucas Haas) share the sprawling, unkempt house with Blake, but nothing more. They seem motivated solely by their desire to freeload or to obtain an ďinĒ into the music world.
Van Sant, taking an oblique, tangential approach to narrative, includes a handful of seemingly disparate, disconnected events and scenes that, when pulled together interpretatively, come tantalizingly close to offering some insight into Blakeís inner state. Van Sant utilizes a film style that favors long and medium static shots (with the occasional Steadicam shot), rarely using close ups (except for the rare instance when he wants to emphasize the emotion in a particular scene). Van Santís oblique, non-traditional film style works through and frustration, playing against audience expectations, expectations developed through watching mainstream, conventional films. Narratively, Van Sant eschews dialogue scenes that make Blakeís inner state transparent (outside of chaotic, often nonsensical rumblings). By also avoiding in-text explanations for Blakeís behavior or for his deteriorated psychological state, Van Sant clearly makes a choice that runs counter to the typically reductive answer found in psychological or character-driven dramas (i.e., childhood trauma or dysfunctional family relationships, both of which Kurt Cobain actually had or experienced directly).
Van Sant avoids showing Blakeís suicide or the direct, causal events that lead, at least in traditional film (and in the real-world), to the life-negating decision to commit suicide. Van Sant doesnít foreground a specific event or experience, or even set of experiences, that inexorably lead to Blakeís death (he only hints at Blakeís fragile ego and antagonism toward fame and celebrity). Ultimately, Van Santís film style and narrative approach also means that audiences expecting clear turning points, revelations, and reversals, all of which culminate in a dramatic payoff (and a moment of catharsis) will be seriously frustrated and find Last Days a difficult, torturous film to sit through.In short, Van Sant prefers to observe events from a clinical distance, ask the odd question about character motivation, and leave the mystery of human personality and individual choice for the audience to decipher. Before then, however, Van Sant offers a hint in Blakeís last song, a mournful, anguished cry (written by Michael Pitt) meant to articulate Blakeís despair and estrangement from the world and people around him. But this last song might be also meant to indicate Blake and, by extension Cobainís, despair at losing his ability to write music (a common concern among artists). If so, itís the closest Van Sant allows us to Blake/Cobainís inner state in the moments before his death.
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originally posted: 08/05/05 09:50:16